Organ donation, a Jewish perspective

Around 1700 Australians are on organ transplant waiting lists, waiting for a phone call with a matched organ offer, in any month. In 2014, 1117 people were given a second chance at life because of the generosity of 378 organ donors and their families. In the same year nearly 4,000 living and deceased tissue donors enabled over 5,500 Australians to receive essential skin, heart valve, bone and tendon tissue grafts.
Extensive consultation with religious and community leaders and research commissioned by the Organ and Tissue Authority (OTA) has shown that people from a number of cultural and religious communities in Australia are less likely to have made a decision about becoming a donor, or to have discussed their decision with their families.

For many observant Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews, the halachic prohibition of ending a life, or the requirement to return to the earth whole, may have influenced their attitude about the acceptability of donating organs after their death.

The Organ and Tissue Authority was established in 2009 to deliver the Australian Government’s national reform programme to improve organ and tissue donation and transplantation outcomes in Australia. The ‘Donate Life…the greatest gift’ campaign was developed to provide culturally appropriate information about organ and tissue donation to religious and cultural communities and to help more people make an informed decision about organ and tissue donation.

In April 2015, the Sydney Beth Din released a position paper on organ donation after death. The position paper sets out the halachic considerations surrounding organ donation. Ms Yael Cass, Chief Executive Officer of the OTA, welcomes the release of the position paper as an important document that will support members of the Australian Jewish community to make an informed decision about supporting organ donation.

“ We hope that the position paper will help families understand the importance of discussing donation decisions with their families and to feel a sense of comfort that this ruling, or psak, provides support for their decision to proceed with donation in the event of brain death – a decision which is the ultimate act of giving to save the lives of others.”

The paper seeks to reconcile the fundamental Judaic principles of saving a life, and the prohibition against taking a life. This statement by the Beth Din members Rabbi’s Gutnick, Ulman and Chriqui considers the various opinions of halachic ‘death’ as that which occurs when either the heart or the brain fail to function. The statement contends that though both opinions carry halachic weight, the Sydney Beth Din will facilitate halachic organ donation for those families choosing to proceed with donation when their loved one has died following the respiratory brain death pathway.

Ms Cass has spent nearly 30 years working on the development of social policy, with a special emphasis on health funding, service delivery, program evaluation and reform. A key priority of the OTAs over the last two years has been close consultation and engagement with religious and cultural leaders, as respected advocates with their communities, to promote a broad understanding of each religion’s perspective on the merit and benefit of organ donation for transplantation – and the real need for individuals to make a decision about being a donor, ensuring that their family knows and committing to honour the wishes of their loved ones if the rare opportunity to be an organ donor arises.

Ms Cass will address the Plenum alongside Rabbi Ulman who will discuss the Beth Din’s position on organ donation.

The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies plenum meeting takes place on Tuesday June 16 at 7.30pm.